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Editorial: The right to know

The task force studying the need for public subsidies to private developers in Baltimore started to get to the heart of the matter this week — disclosure and accountability.

The group spent nearly two hours debating how financing tools like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and Payments In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOTs) should be analyzed in terms of whether the city gains or loses financially from the deals and how much information about them should be disclosed.

Irene E. VanSant of the Baltimore Development Corp., which has negotiated many of the deals, warned that obtaining financial data from developers may be difficult.

“We don’t have the proprietary right to demand information,” she said.

“Maybe we should,” responded Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a former city housing commissioner.

When Ms. VanSant said that BDC does not have the staff to track tax data for specific projects, Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said sufficient oversight could be achieved by analyzing small samples of data rather than exhaustive audits.

Then Councilman Carl Stokes made the central point: “We ought to consider recommending that the taxpayer has the right to know. Promises are made and we should be able to track them.”

He’s right. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. As things stand now, few people know how these deals are structured, how these public funds are being spent and whether city taxpayers are getting a decent return on their investment.

And yes, the taxpayer does have the right to know. That’s not something to “consider recommending.” It’s something to make happen — now.